On both sides of the bench
It is always gratifying and astonishing to run into a mention of Judge R. Pattangall, and to hear from folks who have stories about him. He was chief justsice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from 1930 to 1935, and before that a practicing lawyer whose keen wit embellished both his days in court and his others. Perhaps he was Maine's most able attorney, something (as Abe Lincoln said) he didn't need to prove because he admitted it. Deriving out of our far-down town of Pembroke, which is Maine is always pem-brook,m his active practice was mostly in Machias, the shire down of Washington County. But he was respected and admired in the 15 other courthouses of the state, and my little maiden aunt, Lillian, knew as many Pattangall stories as anybody -- she was deputy clerk of courts in York County for over 40 years.
I had some moments with Patt, and broke into journalism along with his daughter Jo. She told me story out of Machias that I have since heard in several folklore versions, all about the same in the outcome. A Washington County entrepreneur in about everything from smuggling to blueberries owned a summer hotel somewhere down around Cape Split, and it had become a losing asset known in innkeeper circles as a white elephant. One fall this gentleman closed the place, put all the shutters on, paid the insurance, and with his wife drove off for Florida, where he customarily passed the winter.
Five days later the police found him in North Carolina and shipped him back to Maine to face charges of arson. His hotel had burned to the ground.
Pattangall defended him and won an acquittal. The next day this gentleman, again ready to set off for Florida, came into Patt's office to pay the legal fee , and in a gesture of expansive gratitufe he said, "Now, Patt, if they's ever anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to call on me."
Pattangall said, "Well, now that I think about it, there is something you can do for me."
"You just name it, and it's good as done! What can I do?"
Pattangall said, "I wish you'd tell me where you found a candle long enough to burn for five days."
The old Ephraim Tutt stories had the recurring theme of the back country lawyer who outsmarted the city slicker attorney, and many a Pattangall story runs that course. My aunt Lillian liked one that involved a true State Street lawyer right out of Proper Boston who arrived in Alfred (shire town of York) to oppose Pattangall in an open-and-shut matter that Pattangall had no right whatever to consider in his bag. All the evidence and all the law were on the Bostonian's side, and in chambers before the trial began Judge Emergy had suggested to Pattangall that he might be wise to compromise.
The Boston lawyer actually had pin stripes, and although Pattangall had on a shirt and tie, with jacket, he was no match for the tailored perfection of his brother -- in Maine lawyers in court always refer to their adversary as "my brother." The Boston lawyer arose for his opening remarks, completed the amenities, and walked in quiet dignity toward the jury box, where he bowed to the twelve good men and true, touched his fingers in a gesture of oratorical readiness, and began somewhat in this vein:
"Gentlemen -- in a court of law the trial of a litigation is in some respects like a wellprepared and well-served banquet. My opening remarks may be compared to the hors d'ouevres,m and next will come a tasty soup, leading toward the entree, all concluding with a desert. . . ."
He continued this analogy, passing from soup to nuts in a way that was a mite too ingratiating, but his language was pleasing and the jurors leaned forward not to miss a word. Good things to eat are always good news. He skillfully tied his case to his comparisons, modulating his trained voice to best advantage , and when he turned to bow at Pattangall everybody could see he wasa a smart attorney. Judge Emery said, "Does the defense have remarks?"
Pattangall in turn did the amenities, walked to the jury box, and with a wink he said, "Gentlemen, where I come from, when I've had my soup, I'm through."
My aunt Lillian always said the Boston lawyer might just as well have saved his train fare.